A city of art and history, Le Mans is distinguished by the diversity of its heritage. Its stones bear the fingerprints of every period. A fortress in Roman times and capital of the counts of Maine, it is now the crossroads of Western Europe. Le Mans has always played an important role in economics and even in religion.
The city of the Cenomani Aulerci was invaded in 57 BC by Roman legions. Rome left us imposing, superbly preserved architectural evidence.
Built in the late third century (280-295), this compound is the best preserved of all the ancient Roman Empire, with those of the two imperial capitals: Rome and Byzantium (Istanbul). A unique monument in France, the compound has stood, without real foundations, for 1700 years.
Its construction of brick and roussard stone bound by a pink mortar gives it that characteristic colour. Twelve towers, a door and three posterns are still visible, especially on the banks of the Sarthe.
The story of the Plantagenets begins with a wedding at Le Mans in 1128, that of Geoffrey V the Handsome and Matilda, daughter of the King of England. Geoffrey was called Plantagenet because when he went hunting, he would place a juniper sprig in his headgear.
The Plantagenet royal palace houses the town hall.
It was the birthplace of Count Geoffrey V and his son Henry II, future king of England. Also, Queen Berengaria spent her long widowhood there after the death of her husband, Richard the Lionheart.
Founded by Queen Berengaria in 1229, the Abbaye de la Piété-Dieu de l’Épau, to give it its full name, is one of the latest Cistercian foundations in France. The sovereign rests within these walls, so close to the city she loved so much.
Le Mans is also the birthplace of the royal dynasty of Valois. John II, the Good, king of France in 1350, was born in 1319 in the castle of Gué-de-Maulny. This castle was destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War.
The Cité Plantagenet, the historic heart, encloses over 1700 years of architecture. Following the huge restoration project launched in 1972, the quarter has regained its lustre and is a must-visit for all.
From “Cyrano de Bergerac” to “Blessures assassins” (Murderous Maids), Le Mans has a comfortable place in filmography. The quality of its architectural heritage, the reputation of the 24 Hours circuit, the enthusiastic extras and its proximity to Paris make it an ideal filming location.
The construction of the Cathédrale Saint Julien over five centuries (from the eleventh to the fifteenth century) has vested it with a variety of styles. It is also one of the largest in France, 134m long, with a floor area of 5000 m2.
The heavenly concert by 47 musical angels (late fourteenth century), painted on the vaults of the chapel of the Virgin, is a pinnacle of Western Gothic, worth comparing to the famous tapestry of the “Apocalypse” of Angers, to which it is contemporary and stylistically close. It is the work of an anonymous painter of the court of French kings Charles V and VI. Some of the instruments represented, like the “chessboard” (table covered with a chessboard with a keyboard on one side), have disappeared and are known only by these paintings.
The museums of Le Mans offer a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions, guided tours and lectures. They also have an educational service.
The collections presented at the Le Mans museum of archaeology and history – about 1,200 objects – tell the story of the city and its region from the first human settlement in prehistoric times to the fifteenth century. Whenever possible, the focus is on regional characteristics, with locally sourced items. You can admire the archetypal and emblematic objects: the Cenoman hoard from the Gallic period, a glass drinking horn of the fourth or fifth century for the early Middle Ages, the “Saint-Bertrand” shroud (ninth or tenth century), the Plantagenet enamel (twelfth century) and the Coëffort silver treasure (fifteenth century) for the Middle Ages.
Restored in 1990, Tessé Museum displays collections of fine art (paintings, sculptures and objets d’art). The Egyptian gallery invites visitors to move through time and space, back to 1420 BC in the Egypt of the pharaohs. The Florentine and Sienese primitives form a major part of the collections with seventeenth-century paintings, particularly French and Italian painting in the style of Caravaggio.
The centrepieces are “Elijah’s sleep” and “Vanity” by Philippe de Champaigne, “Still Life with Armour” by Willem Kalf, secretary of Louis XV, and very original paintings illustrating the “Comic Novel” by Scarron.
Within walls steeped in history, the Queen Berengaria museum presents ethnological collections of the city of Le Mans and the Maine region.
At the heart of the Cité Plantagenet, close to the Saint-Julien Cathedral, the Queen Berengaria museum is a key milestone in a journey through the historical city. The collections are housed in three beautiful timber-framed houses of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.
The Green Museum, the natural history museum of Le Mans, offers exhibitions and events for family audiences and schools on nature and science. Classified as a “musée de France” (French museums subject to government oversight), it houses more than 300,000 artefacts, the oldest of which were collected during the French Revolution.
Focusing on the history of the 24 Hours race and the evolution of the automobile, the 24-Hour Museum invites visitors to browse through more than a century of history in a sequenced, attractive and dynamic course. This site reflects the wealth of local history and is dedicated to promoting its collection to everyone, imbuing them with the desire to discover this technical and industrial heritage. Located close to the famous 24 Hours circuit and covering over 4000m², the museum showcases over 100 exceptional automobiles, collectibles, dozens of films and archival photographs. A bright spotlight on automobiles, a key technology of the twentieth century, the museum stands out as an important cultural site.